Fitbit One Review: not a true "activity tracker" but that's okay

Several of my friends jumped on the Fitbit bandwagon so when the Fitbit One was announced late last year I pre-ordered. I was initially disappointed and returned it within the first few weeks. While prepping for the Mac Power Users show on Geek Fitness, I spoke with David about his experiences and received a lot of positive feedback from our listeners so I decided to give it another try. (Thanks to Ben Brooks who gave me a good deal on his slightly-used Fitbit One) I’ve been using this second Fitbit One regularly for about a month now and here's how it's going.

Perspective

Every situation is different, I think it’s important you understand a little about my lifestyle and how I use the Fitbit. For the most part, I live the stereotypical suburban white-collar geek lifestyle. I've never cared for outdoor activities and until recently my average daily physical activity consisted of running around the office. I paid for a gym membership (just paying for it counts, right?) but more often than not something came up I'd never end up going. Being single, my diet was pretty poor and consisted primarily of convenience and pre-prepared foods. As a result, I’ve been overweight and out of shape for years.

This summer, I decided something had to give and committed to a major change. I hired a personal trainer and got setup with a rigorous nutrition and workout routine. On a typical week I'll workout at the gym five days a week including a combination of weight training sessions with my trainer, spin (cycling) classes and using various cardio machines including elliptical trainers, stair-climbers and treadmills. I’ve introduced new foods, including vegetables to my diet and am cooking more at home. I won’t lie, it’s been miserable, but worth it.

After six months, I still have a way to go before I meet my personal goals but I can already tell vast improvement and am now getting to the point where I actually enjoy some of the exercise. However, I still live a very sedentary lifestyle outside my set gym hours. I work a typical office job, drive everywhere and leave my house most mornings at dawn and seldom get home before dark. After several months my workout routine was starting to hit a plateau and I hoped integrating the Fitbit would help liven things up and push me a little harder.

About the Fitbit

You can find all the technical specs and general information about the Fitbit at their web site so I'll try not to duplicate too much of that here. In short, the Fitbit One is a small device you wear on your body that uses a 3-axis accelerometer and an altimeter to tracks steps, distance, floors climbed, calories burned and sleep cycle. The Fitbit stores this information and syncs via Bluetooth to a Mac, PC or iOS device (an Android App is in the works). When you register for a Fitbit.com account, it will keep track of your information, graph progress and show trends. There's a social and motivational aspect with Fitbit in that you can earn badges for certain milestones and share your information with Fitbit using friends. Using the web interface and apps you can also log meals and other activities. The more information you put in, the better overall picture you’re going to get.

The Device

There are a couple different Fitbit models with a new wristband having just been announced this year at CES. The model I use is the Fitbit One which looks like a pebble and is smaller than most USB flash drives. There's also a lower-end version, the Fitbit Zip, that is a little larger, and doesn’t include a rechargeable battery or the ability to track stairs climbed or sleep.

For me, the form factor of the Fitbit One was both it's greatest asset and liability. Personally, I've never liked the appearance of any of the wristband activity trackers including the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up or the newly announced Fitbit Flex. As a lawyer who spends most of her day in a suit, I never thought these wristbands were an appropriate accessory for the courtroom or client meetings. Aside from that, cheap plastic on my wrist has always just bugged the crap out of me. Perhaps I'm vain, to each their own.

For these reasons, the Fitbit Zip or the One was the only option of all these activity trackers because it could be tucked away in a pocket or clipped inconspicuously to clothing. The problem was, it became too easy for me to forget it. Several times during my testing I'd forget the Fitbit and leave it clipped to my work clothes when I changed for the gym. How frustrating to have spent 45 minutes on the treadmill and the Fitbit have logged nothing. On more than one occasion I had to rescue the Fitbit from the laundry basket when I tossed it in with my gym clothes. Thankfully I haven't put my Fitbit through the spin cycle - yet. Even while writing this review I lost the Fitbit in an office desk drawer for a day. How does that happen? I’m convinced based on my recent history it's only a matter of time before I lose or destroy the Fitbit and that will be that.

There's no great solution here. Either I have to develop a better habit of making the Fitbit a part of my daily life and make sure it doesn't get left behind or get over my dislike for wristband solutions that I'm more likely to keep track of. There’s an LED display on the Fitbit is off by default and with the press of the single button on the device will alternate between showing your step total for the day, distance walked, calories burned, stairs climbed, a “flower” which is supposed to be a graphical representation of your activity level, a clock and a timer. The design is simple and elegant and the display clear and easy to read.

Setup

The easiest way to setup the Fitbit was to create a Fitbit.com account and pair the device using the iOS App. You can sync the Fitbit by your computer but that required downloading the Fitbit software and using a bluetooth dongle for initial setup. This seemed silly because both my Mac and the Fitbit communicate via Bluetooth so I’m not sure why the dongle was required for setup with my Mac but it was. I hate installing additional software on my Mac, so I opted for iOS setup.

One problem I noticed right out of the box was the Fit bit arrived with more than ten thousand steps over the last few days in transit. (Man, that UPS guy is active!) When I linked my tracker with my account, I hoped/thought the Fitbit would reset but it didn’t, instead I earned badges for that activity and credit for the steps. I searched for a way to reset the info and even contacted contacted customer support to no avail. (Fitbit has since posted this support note.) So for the first few days my stats were off which was annoying, but I just had to accept it all evened out after a while.

Once your tracker is setup you enter information about yourself and your goals. This includes basic information like height, weight, fitness goals, goal weight and how aggressive of a program you want to follow. Fitbit will then use this information to figure out a target daily calorie goal and to determine how many calories each activity burns.

iOS App and Web Interface

Most of my interaction with the Fitbit is through the iOS App. Using the App you can see a view of your activity, calories consumed, sleep information from the previous night, weight, calories available based on the program you’ve chosen and water consumed. There are also tabs where you can manually enter food consumed, activity not logged by the Fitbit, see your ranking compared to your Friend’s seven-day step total and configure the Fitbit settings.

Since keeping an accurate track of food is an important part of my regimen I was very interested in how the Fitbit’s food tracker compared to other apps. Unfortunately, I found it lacking. The database of foods was reasonable but the method of entering foods was not very fast or intuitive. All foods had to be manually searched for and if you weren’t using the exact name Fitbit had the food cataloged as it wouldn’t find it. It works, better once you’ve built up a database of commonly used foods, but it’s frustrating. I much prefer the LoseIt App which includes an expanded database, barcode scanner, restaurants and supermarket food choices and options to create custom recipes.

It seems the food tracking capabilities of Fitbit were more of a second thought in the App and that’s a shame because but its shortcomings in this area keeps Fitbit from being the “all in one” solution may people are looking for. The good news is Fitbit will integrate with more developed food tracking apps like LoseIt and My Fitness Pal. I was able to connect my Fitbit account with my LoseIt account and now my food entered in LoseIt syncs with Fitbit. You don’t get as much detail within the Fitbit App as you do within LoseIt, but it’s enough to tell you how many calories you’ve eaten and how many remain. If you’re interested in tracking food and calories consumed, I strongly encourage you to find an App more suited for this purpose and sync it with the Fitbit.

In addition to the activity the Fitbit tracks, you can manually enter activities. Because the Fitbit is designed to track steps and floors climbed, other actives will have to be manually entered. The problem is, because Fitbit is designed to tracks “steps” manually entering activities such as cycling, rowing, or weightlifting doesn’t count towards your “steps”, but you do get credit for the approximate calories burned.

I always entered my exercise activity LoseIt to get an overall idea of calories consumed vs. burned but was disappointed to see that while food would sync from LoseIt to Fitbit, activities did not. I also noticed a great discrepancy in the estimated calories burned from one App to another. For example, a 45 minute spin class (logged in both apps as stationary bike, vigorous effort) earned me back 889 calories in LoseIt but only 627 from Fitbit. I always go with the lower total to err on the side of caution, but this seems like a vast difference.

The last major category that the Fitbit will track is sleep. The Fitbit One comes with a soft wristband you can slip the Fitbit into and wear on your wrist when you turn in for the night. When you get in bed to put it into “sleep mode” and press it again when you wake up. The Fitbit will track the time you went to bed, how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times during the night you woke up and how much time you spent in bed vs. asleep. The web interface displays much more information than the iOS App. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it’s interesting information. For example I can tell that on average over the last week when I wake up in the middle of the night it takes me between 8-10 minutes to get back to sleep. (Always felt longer.) Thankfully sleep has never been a problem for me so I’m not sure how regularly I’ll use the sleep monitor function. For someone who has trouble with sleep and is trying to keep a sleep log, it certainly can be helpful.

Steps vs. Activity

One of my biggest pet peeves about the Fitbit really isn’t its fault. As I mentioned at the top of this review, the Fitbit is designed to primarily measure your steps. Depending on your model it may also measure stairs climbed. But for someone like me, who spends hours a week at the gym but otherwise lives a sedentary lifestyle, this isn’t necessary a fair calculation of fitness or activity level. Nevertheless, the entire social aspect of the Fitbit is built around the concept of steps with a default target of 10,000 steps a day. I’m lucky if I make a third of that.

I’ve tried wearing the Fitbit for my non-step related activities at the gym and the results have varied wildly. For example, at spin class last Sunday I rode 20 miles in 55 minutes alternating between a combination of speed work and inclines. I wore the Fitbit on my shoe and it calculated just over 2 miles and 4000 steps. That’s about the same “credit” I got for a 45 minute stroll around the neighborhood the day before. Likewise, using the stair-master at the gym, I climbed over 60 floors, the Fitbit mocked me with a “0” floors climbed. Of course it would, the Fitbit uses an altimeter to measure floors climbed and after I stepped up on the stair-master my altitude never changed more than a few inches. Yesterday in spin class Fitbit registered 26 floors climbed in addition to over 5000 steps. There doesn’t seem to be much consistency in the reporting these types of activities.

I really can’t expect any different behavior from the Fitbit, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless. For me, this takes it out of the category of “activity tracker” and more into “upscale pedometer.” I’m not aware of any current device on the market that will do better, though the Amiigo Fitness Bracelet currently under development looks promising. The Amiigo seems to be unique in that it uses multiple sensors in different locations to determine the type of physical activity.

Social

Fitbit is designed to be a social device. You choose what you are wiling to share with your friends and compete with step counts and badges earned. While additional information is available through the web interface, on the iOS device you simply see a ranking based on the 7 day step total for you and your friends.

I tend to be towards the bottom of the pack in my friends list. Right now my 7 day step total sits around 37,000 steps (remember your default goal is 10,000 steps a day). My most active friends have upwards of 60,000 steps while the mid range of my friends tends to be around the mid-40,000s.

It’s a little disappointing that despite all my hard work, all I get credit for is steps, but that’s what the Fitbit counts. On the other hand, this does offer encouragement to stay active outside my gym time. For example, the last couple weeks I’ve started walking around my neighborhood on the weekends and even walked at lunch to the local bagel shop rather than drive in my car. This is exactly what I was hoping the Fitbit would encourage me to do. I'm not seeing any dramatic changes, but every little bit helps.

Bottom Line

At $100 the Fitbit isn’t the most expensive tech toy I own, but it isn’t cheap either. In retrospect, I probably would have done just as well opting for the lower-end Zip model and saving $40 since I wouldn’t miss the stair or sleep tracking features. In all likelihood I’ll continue to use the Fitbit for a while, but if I lost it or damaged it, I wouldn’t replace it. I wouldn’t be surprised if three months from now I’m not using the Fitbit, It just hasn’t become that important part of my life.

Whether the Fitbit is right for you depends on your lifestyle. For someone like me who participates in a lot of non-step fitness activities and has an established gym routine, the Fitbit doesn’t do much beyond offer some additional motivation to be active outside my gym routine. On the other hand, if you’re a typical geek with a sedentary lifestyle and don’t have a set workout routine, the Fitbit could be just the gadget you need to get moving. Small changes like taking a walk every day at lunch of opting for the stairs over the elevator in conjunction with good nutrition can add up. If the Fitbit is the device that motivates you to get started, it’s worth every penny and more.